Religious Life

Honoring Our “So-Called” Judges

“Honoring Our “So-Called” Judges”
29 Shevat 5777 • Mishpatim • Shabbat Shekalim • February 25, 2017
Rabbi Alexander Davis

Once, a Jew living on Park Avenue built a Sukkah on his balcony. Some of his high society neighbors brought him to court claiming that his hut was an eyesore. They said it was having a negative impact on the value of their homes.

In court, the man was visibly worried. It was erev Sukkot, the eve of this the eight-day holiday. He had no time to make alternative arrangements if judge were to order him to take down the Sukkah.

The judge entered the courtroom. “Here ye, here ye. All rise. The Honorable Judge Ginsburg presiding.”

“A Jewish judge? I feel better already,” the man said. But just as soon, his hopes began to fade when the judge began to scold him: “Don’t you realize that you live on Park Avenue, and not in Brooklyn? There is a certain decorum which is expected on Park Avenue. You have no right to put up an ugly hut on this lovely street without a building permit.”

Dismayed, the Jew braced for the ruling: “I hereby rule that either you remove the hut, or I will fine you one thousand dollars. You have exactly eight days to do so! Next Case!!!”

We are heading toward Purim, not Sukkot. But I have found myself in recent weeks thinking about the role of judges and the importance of our judicial system. I spoke briefly about it a few weeks ago. This morning, I want to expand on my remarks. And there is no better time to do so than today when we read Parashat Mishpatim.

Mishpatim means laws. When you go to law school in Israel, you study mishpatim. In our parasha, mishpatim refer to specific judicial rulings. 53 different laws are covered. But the introduction sets the stage to them all: eleh hamishpatim asher tasim lifnehem. God spoke to Moshe saying, “These are the laws that you shall place before them.” Our chumash explains, “knowledge of the law is a privilege and obligation of the entire people, not the prerogative of specialists or of an elite class.” In other words, place the laws “lifneihem” before the whole Israelite people.

This verse emphasizes that common folk are supposed to know the law and follow the law. But that alone is not enough. We are to respect the law and the legal system. As we read in the parasha, “do not revile a judge.”

Sadly, our own American legal system is being called into question. President Trump’s reference to “so called” judges” diminishes the honor do to them and undermines their authority. Not only do I fear for their physical safety, I fear the long term consequences when deep seated mistrust of an entire branch of our government is sewn. And let me also say, this is not a partisan issue. I worry that calling a seat stolen will only serve to undermine the Supreme Court. And I worry over the politicization of the courts.

But since I am not a constitutional lawyer, I leave that for others as I return to the parasha. Besides the multiplicity of laws enumerated, our Torah reading addresses how we should relate to legal authorities. “Elohim lo t’kaleil, do not revile a judge” (22:27). For those keeping track, this is negative commandment #63.

Now you may rightly object to my translation. We usually translate Elohim as God. But the rabbis understood it to mean judge. For example, earlier in the parasha: “if the thief is not found, then the homeowner shall approach elohim, the judge,” to testify in court. This use of elohim as judge has its parallel in Mesopotamiam court records which frequently mention a litigant taking “an oath of the gods” while holding a figurine of a god. In other words, the Israelites and later the rabbis borrowed the idea of making a legal oath over an idol and transformed it to an oath to God in a sanctuary before judges.

Some might object to the rabbinic interpretation of “elohim” as judge saying, “it’ll go to their heads.” But perhaps we use that word davka so that it goes to our heads. We are to revere not revile our judges not because they are gods but because the decision they render in halakha, Jewish law has the force of being God’s law. Similarly, in our American legal system, we are to honor our judges. We stand when they enter the court. We speak only when spoken to. We do these things not just to honor the person but to honor the office. Moreover, these rituals of the court instill in us and express faith in the legal process.

Elohim lo t’kaleil. Do not revile a judge. The rabbis explain our verse with a story: “it once happened that a man had a lawsuit and came before a judge who ruled in his favor. The man went about town saying, “There is no finer judge in the whole world.” Time passed and the same man had another case that came before the same judge. This time, the verdict went against him. And he went around town saying, “There is no worse judge than this one.” About such a person the Torah says, “Do not revile a judge.” This teaching is included in our weekday siddur and our morning minyan has taken to reading it aloud to reinforce the message.

To be clear, judges have to know from the outset that they are not going to win a popularity contest. It is likely that one side or another is going to end up disappointed by their decision. Neither are judges above review. But the man in this story goes beyond criticizing a ruling. His attack is personal. He treats the judge like some fans treat refs at a game. He sees the case only from his narrow perspective of personal gain and not from an objective vantage of what is right for the community and right in the eyes of the law. And in the process he undermines the legitimacy of the legal system. In the words of the Meam Loaz, “when a person curses a judge, the Torah counts it as a violation. That is true even if he does not curse him in his presence. It is all the more true if he curses him in the presence of others. If a person shows such disrespect, others will learn from him and will not respect the leadership. This will result in general disharmony.”

Most of us are not judges. And hopefully, most of us will never encounter them in a court of law. But how we speak about them, treat them, vote for them matters. For how we approach the court system can strengthen or weaken the rule of law. And with it, our entire country.

Lo t’kalel elohim. Strikingly rather than call this mitzvah by its name, “cursing judges,” it is sometimes euphemistically called just the opposite, “birkat hashem, blessing judges.” The rabbis hesitated to call this offense by its real name. It is a so called mitzvah. And it calls upon us to not only address judges as, “your honor” but to treat them as such. Thus may our judiciary branch be strengthened and our world rest firm on din, justice.